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All Students Feel the Effects of Trying to Meet a Higher Standard

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, October 18, 2007

Dear Extra Credit:

In your Sept. 27 column ["Individual Student Improvement Should Trump All Else"], you noted that parents need to focus on the progress their children are making and not worry excessively about test scores for the school, or about whether the school meets adequate yearly progress targets under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

What that advice overlooks is that when a school is in danger of not meeting the AYP standards, all students in the school are affected, not just those who are in danger of failing the test. Last year at our neighborhood elementary school in Silver Spring, the principal said there was a real chance the school would not meet the standard. Consequently, the entire focus of the school was on the Maryland School Assessment tests. For example:

All the students at the school, even kindergartners, were drilled on how to answer "brief constructed responses" (short written answers to essay questions), because they are an important part of the MSA. My son was in second grade last year and did not even take the assessment tests, but BCRs came home regularly in his backpack.

The focus of the leadership meetings in the school is on the MSA. I'm active in the school and attended one of those leadership meetings last year, and know from other parents who attended other meetings that most of the discussion at those meetings is on the MSA and what the school needs do to ensure it will make AYP.

The school put on a pep rally the week before the test. All children were taken out of class for the rally, and the second grade spent time in the weeks before writing and practicing skits for it. I'm all in favor of including more theater and drama in the curriculum, but I think it's a pathetic state of affairs when the organizing principle for such an activity is a standardized test.

Although I agree that a parent's job is to focus on the progress that his or her child is making in school, it's just not realistic to ask or expect parents to disregard concerns about AYP. At our school, at least, they permeated all aspects of the school last year. The school did make AYP last year, but already this year students are being drilled to prepare for the math portion of the MSA, so I'm not optimistic that the focus of the school will be that much different. If the test were promoting higher-level thinking skills, I might not find all of this so disheartening.

Karen Flynn

Silver Spring

First, the good news. The BCRs won't be around much longer. Maryland education officials have decided they take too long to grade and don't encourage good writing instruction, a point vividly made in Linda Perlstein's great new book, "Tested." Next year will be the last time they are used.

Now, the bad news. The actions of the administrators at your school, in my view, were ill-considered and dumb, and may recur. There is no reason to panic when there is a danger of missing the goals under No Child. What the school needs is more good teaching, not less. Pep rallies strike me as not a great use of time. But maybe the educators at your school had good reasons for what they did. I would love to hear from teachers who think these activities, common in the Washington area, make sense, and also what other parents in the area think of the efforts at their schools to prepare for the state and D.C. tests.

Dear Extra Credit:

I understand that each state wants to measure if and how much children learn, but I am thoroughly disappointed that each state thinks only its test is worthwhile. Because my husband is in the military, my children transfer schools every two years. Every state requires that my children be retested and/or be placed in the lowest-level class.

Our most recent move was to Howard County. My oldest son had A's and B's on his report card, scored in the 98th percentile on his most recent state tests and had an Individualized Education Plan for gifted services. His school put him in the lowest-level classes, made him retest and then moved him into all new classes the third week of school. What a lousy transition for a new kid.

School administrators need to apply some common sense and flexibility in these types of situations. They should not be penalized for test scores of transfer students. Moving schools is hard enough on any child.

Maureen Fields

Columbia

I have had a similar experience. My seventh-grade daughter, a top math student, was placed in a slower math group at a new school, without her parents being told, because her teacher and adviser thought she would be "more comfortable" there. We got it fixed, but I will always remember that smart educators are capable of dumb moves.

Patti Caplan, spokeswoman for the Howard County schools, said they must administer their own test before placing a child in a gifted program because standards differ so greatly from state to state. She said new students such as your son "are placed in grade-level classes initially because schools prefer to move students into more challenging classes after testing rather than risk having to move them later into a less challenging class, which sends an entirely different message to the student."

I think they might want to reconsider that policy, particularly with students with a record such as your son's. But Caplan said their records show your child was in class only six days before his schedule changed in the second week of school.

Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number, to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mailextracredit@washpost.com.

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